Monthly Archives: August 2012

I Do

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I love weddings.

I like thinking about different gown ideas, a variety of color schemes, and exactly what songs would be the best at certain moments. And you know what? I know I’m not even the worst; I have a couple of girlfriends who scour wedding blogs and watch hours (and hours) of wedding shows on TV. To be fair, if I had regular internet access and cable TV, well, I’d probably do the same.

Weddings are popular conversation in Rwanda; more specifically, people (men, women, and yes, children) always ask me, do you have a husband? Of course, the answer is a resounding, NO.

If I could photograph their reactions, well, it’d make for a great blog entry or something. You would think I have offended everything they know to be true in the world. Usually, we then move the conversation along to either how they will find me a partner, how I should have a wedding within the year, or at the very least, I should take a boyfriend, preferably a Rwandan boyfriend.

What’s great now though, is that I have a perfectly manufactured and scripted response to this. I hit the following points:

  1. I explain that in my culture, I’m still considered very young—in no way is a single 23 year old woman a weird thing.
  2. I would not be opposed to having a boyfriend. However, I don’t want to be with someone for the sake of being someone; and what’s especially a problem in Rwanda is that many of the men that are interested in me see my skin color and that’s all they see. I tell these nay-sayers that if I take a boyfriend then he better want to know me for me, not because I happen to be an umuzungo. Oh, not to mention the drama of having a boyfriend IN my village. That would just be a can of worms that I would not want to open.
  3. I have a lot on my plate right now; I am constantly using another language to communicate and live in my community, I have lessons to plan, projects to follow through on, and a life to build here. I don’t need a boyfriend—or a husband—to do all of this. I did the Peace Corps for a lot of probably overly-idealistic reasons to change the world, and idealistic they may be, I stand by them. I always said meeting the love of my life here would a huge bonus but I’m learning rather quickly that more times than not, the classic Peace Corps love story is a myth.
  4. I’m happy with my life right now. Sure, of course I want to share this all with someone. Of course! But, I didn’t come half-way around the world to be away from my family and friends to simply find a life partner. If something comes along, then great, but I have a lot of my ahead of me. There’s no rush, and I genuinely am perfectly content with that. I’m happy; isn’t that enough?

So, I go through all of these points, exhaust them completely, and at this point the person questioning my relationship status often nods, smiles, and laughs.

Touché, they must be thinking. That, or oh my god that girl is crazy.

But that’s neither here nor there; like I said, I love weddings and whatever culture I’ve been a part of, well, they’ve always been important.

There’s something fun, energizing, and of course romantic about families and friends coming together to celebrate the beginning of two people uniting their lives. I’ve seen and been in all kinds of weddings—from Hawaii, to Colorado, to Tennessee, to Ghana, and now even Rwanda. Like the classic girl who is never a bride and always a bridesmaid, I have a collection of dresses sitting back home in my closet. Some are from when I was a small child in my flower girl days and others are from when I was the maid of honor when both of my parents remarried. I recently missed the weddings of two very good friends from high school, and though this was difficult to be away from, I did get to experience the next best thing: I did not just attend a Rwandan wedding this August, oh please, I was a bridesmaid (with a sparkly spaghetti strap lavender dress), bringing my wedding experiences to an entirely new level.  

In Rwanda, a couple can have as many as three ceremonies—a civil ceremony (usually phase one of the wedding process), a dowry (the traditional wedding), and a religious wedding (usually “Western style” with a big, over-the-top white dress, and a wedding entourage with groomsmen and bridesmaids). Becoming a couple is a big deal (as it should be) and I would speculate that weddings are at the very heart of Rwandan life and culture. When it’s wedding season, people are attending marriage ceremonies left and right and it’s the main form of socialization, it seems. For example, after the wedding I was in ended, the wedding party drove around town—the bride and groom in a white mustang convertible and the groomsmen and bridesmaids in a nice Toyota SUV—to show off the brand spankin’ new union (and obviously, the cars). We went to a leafy and flower crazed garden area in the middle of Kigali to take photos. It was clearly a well-established place to have photo ops; each section of the garden had pre-set places to sit, stand, whatever, to get a variety of bridal shots. We had to wait nearly 20 minutes just to drive in and park the car, and once we did, there had to be at least 30 other wedding parties doing exactly the same thing.

The wedding itself was beautiful and unique. My day had started with nails and hair at 7:00am, and after bridal prep (with lots of milk served—this is Rwanda after all), we made it to the large, all-encompassing Evangelical church to march down the aisle by 1:00pm. This differs from your typical American wedding in that a) the bride and groom arrived together b) it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it is when people see the bride for the very first time and c) the bride led the way down the aisle as opposed to walking in after the bridesmaids. We settled off to the side when—BAM! Another bride and groom and complete wedding party entered the church. Apparently, multiple weddings are very common here, and so during the entire religious ceremony, the couples participated together and at the same time. 

Religious it was—there was a booming choir and lots and lots of prayer. All of this was in Kinyarwanda, but my fellow groomsmen helped me stay in the loop. After vows, prayer, a special time for gifts, prayer, family and photos, and another session of prayer, we jetted away for an hour long photo session and back to the church for the reception.

The reception room was pretty—decorated with sparkles and the colors of the wedding—pink, blue, and lavender. We sat at the head table as the ever-present glass bottles of Fanta arrived for us and all of the guests. The couple clinked their glasses with faux champagne, and I nursed my glass of Coca-Cola without any problem—I do love my Coke. We got to light some sparklers, share the cake, and watch some fire performers, all before the buffet of Rwandan food was ready (this wedding was extraordinarily nice and the families must have spent a fortune). The buffet was your standard heap of Rwandan food, but after a week bout of illness and consuming bread and corn flakes, I was ready to gourge. Following food, we received gifts on behalf of the bride and groom. It was at this time where many people commented on how great of a couple myself and my groomsman partner were (what was his name?). Um. No. Typical, of course that would happen. Thank goodness I was in no way bound to give a speech, and so we left the reception, helped the bride (a sister of a good friend of mine in the village) move her things into her new home with her husband. When this was finished, I was relinquished of my duties and headed back to the Peace Corps office on the opposite side of Kigali close to midnight. I was exhausted.

Initially a little frusturated that I got roped into being a bridesmaid (I wondered if I was being used as a status symbol) I went to bed that night with uber curly hair (I had a prom-esque hairstyle) and a greater sense of contentment and appreciation. Honestly, taking part in the wedding of a family that I have grown close to was a pretty unique opportunity. An honor, even. Weddings are weddings anywhere, but it’s incredible to see how people integrate histories, customs, traditions, and values into a day of celebration. I can’t say I’ll do it the same one day, but whenever I do get married, I now have a whole new array of ideas. 

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I’m Giving You All My Love, I’m Still Looking Up

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LOVE

IS A four LETTER WORD.

We got a lot to learn, God knows we’re worth it.

No, I won’t give up

I’m here to stay to make the difference that I can make

We had to learn how to bend without the world caving in.

I had to learn what I got, and what I’m not, and who I am.

God knows I’m tough enough.

–Jason Mraz, I Won’t Give Up

 What is it about Jason Mraz?

It’s like he says everything you are thinking and makes it sound simultaneously catchy, beautiful, philosophical, and well, fun to sing in a moving car down an endless stretch of road.

If you don’t know the brilliance of this man’s music, youtube him immediately. He’s got a lot of hits out there; previously, my favorite album from him was called We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. However, earlier this year, in January, I think—remember, I live a little behind the times when it comes to pop culture—he released an album called Love is a Four Letter Word and turns out, it’s awesome. Just today, my friend offered to torrent download it for me (and I’ll freely admit, I don’t really even understand what that means, but WHATEVER, FREE MUSIC!) and so as I’ve stayed in bed resting from a recent illness, I’ve listened to it on replay, inspired by his meshing of words and ideas.

Maybe what I like best is that his kinds of love songs tend to be the kinds of songs that you can apply to a lot of different things in life. What I mean is that his album title says it perfectly; love is a four letter word, and guess what? It has about three million different kinds of meanings. He might have a love song that he wrote about his feelings for a special person in his life, but because love is so wide, open, and full of different kinds of contexts, his arrangements and lyrics can work for so many relationships and representations of love. That’s what music really should be about. I’m not saying he’s outdone the legends of Mo-Town or the Beatles or anything like that, but I am saying that he’s one of my favorite artists and he sure is incredibly talented.

Jason (I wonder if it’s kosher that I call him that?) has brought me some great memories too.

For one, a bunch of my girlfriends and I crushed together in a Tahoe, hit a popular Little Rock Mexican restaurant for sweet, glorious burritos and margaritas, and went to his concert during our sophomore year. It was a phenomenal show, with some great people, and even though most of us had a Chemistry final the next day, it didn’t really even matter. We danced shamelessly and despite my inclination to be a good, studious college student, for that one night, inhibitions fell by the wayside (I passed Chem with a solid B, by the way).

Last year, right around this time actually, one of my dearest and best friends was married in the sultry summer heat, and at her reception in a beautiful chapel in the middle of the Tennessean country, she danced with her new husband for the first time to Jason’s song Lucky. Yeah, it was a lovely and standstill kind of moment.

During Christmas holiday my senior year of college, we went on a family vacation to Hawaii—my dad, Gretchen, Lance, Audrey, and myself—and it was as if I’m Yours had become the national anthem of Hawaii. I think I heard that song more than I heard any traditional Hawaiian music. But hey, you can sure bet that I wasn’t complaining. Christmas, family, and Jason in Hawaii? Alrighty then. No problem here.

Oh, and who could forget when The Remedy was all the rage on the radio? This particular gem of a jam is all about not worrying your life away and all of that positive, life-encouraging sentiment that Jason likes to sing about, and I remember one summer in high school, driving to the Dairy Queen, hating my job (I reassured myself with the free blizzards awaiting me) and using that song as my pump-up work anthem. Um. Yes. I was 16, thank you very much. And it obviously worked—somehow I worked at the good ole DQ for like three years.

I guess I just give the guy major props for singing about something so hard to capture: love. He attempts, and I think he succeeds.

I listen to this kind of music—I suppose love is the topic of most music in general—but I listen to his music and I’m able to capture those moments in my life where I can say, oh yeah. That’s love. That’s what he’s talking about. I’ve experienced that.

These days, I’ve realized,

LOVE IS:

  • Parent’s pride. Weekly (without fail) phone calls from my parents come on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. They last just around 17 minutes most times, but in those precious minutes, mom and dad both let me gab on about this and that, and they listen patiently, ask questions, tell me how proud I am making them, and always manage to say “I love you” at least 3 different times.
  • Expecting nothing in return. Alphonsine, the woman who cleans the school but also washes clothes and fetches water for me, found me hysterical around 6:30pm the other night out on the road in front of my house. I could barely walk (my body hurt that much), I could barely see (I was that dehydrated), and I had a 104 degree fever (I was all kinds of sick). I was crying because I couldn’t find my phone (because it was dying and I needed to talk to the Peace Corps doctor I had given it to a kid to take and charge for a few minutes). I was also crying because I was alone and I was in pain and I didn’t know what to do. I have been good about keeping my emotions in check as much as I can in public (especially the more negative ones) but in these moments, I just fell apart. She took me by hand, led me to bed, brought me water, helped me to bathe, and made sure I fell asleep soundly for the night. I woke the next morning to more aches and pains, and yet, she had come back. She brought me warm milk, rubbed my back as I tried to keep myself sitting up, and helped me prepare for the Peace Corps car to come and get me. Through all things, she just kept telling me dufite kwizera muri Imana. We have trust in God.
  • Strength in no boundaries. Nothing uplifts my day more when I am reminded of all the love I have tucked in all kinds of places—whether I get this reminder from a package, an email, a card, a letter, or even a facebook comment. Dad sent me one package a month or so ago with a lot of old pictures of Grandma. When he told me he was sending them, I figured I would cry like a baby. And, oh, did I ever! But they were all good tears. The photos—the ones precisely as I remember her—reminded me that even though love can be tested from distance, time, or maybe even death, it does not necessarily change. My grandmother (before her death) hadn’t been able to tell me or anybody in our family “I love you” for at least a couple of years. At least. And yet, I never questioned that kind of unfailing love—not even once. In those pictures—in those distant memories—I recall exactly the way she made me feel and continues to make me feel.
  • Learning to teach and teaching to learn. I have spent a good chunk of my holiday (in between Tanzania, GLOW, and being sick) trying to brainstorm ways and sharing resources with other volunteers to become a better teacher. I know I’ve had some successes, but I also know that there are always new things to learn. What’s great is this: I’m genuinely, in all-perfect honesty, not doing this for me. I’m doing it for them—for my students. Moreover, I’m an open book these days when it comes to learning from the very people I came to teach. In fact, they teach me more. They teach me about their culture, about their lives, and sometimes, they teach me what they know about life in general—life as they know it. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. They are the best part of this entire experience. I cannot imagine leaving them. I’m giving them all my love, and they give it all right back.
  • When one success becomes the success of many. Lance, my brother, has been through more challenges than I could ever comprehend. I’ve watched him go through some of these, but I’ve also been away (be it Arkansas, Ghana, or Rwanda) as he’s tried to navigate through his life the best way he can. Most recently, I’ve celebrated long-distance as he has been baptized, finished rehab, and entered his life of sobriety. But, it wasn’t me just celebrating. It was our family. Our family friends. Friends of friends. Everybody. His story has touched many, and the support network he has of people loving on him, praying for him, and encouraging him has been one of the biggest outpourings of love that I’ve seen.
  • Saying, “yes, you can.” No, (surprisingly) this is not an endorsement for President Obama. Actually, this goes back to what I experienced a few weeks ago at GLOW camp: the power of being an ally and saying to someone that yes, you can do something. Yes, you are capable. Yes, you are beautiful. This changes lives. But, it’s not just for the GLOW girls. I’ve seen this kind of love when it comes to being this kind of person for your best friend, for another Peace Corps Volunteer, for your family members, and sometimes, even for strangers.

Love is a lot of things. It’s undefinable, uncontainable, and unparalleled in importance.

My job here sure is hard sometimes. But, when you consider all of the spectrums of love that I get to witness, experience, and take part in, well you might say I have one of the best jobs in the world.

Jason Mraz puts it best in his song called The World As I See It:

the world as I see it is a remarkable place

every man makes a difference

and every mother’s child is a saint

from a bird’s eye view I can see we are spiraling down in gravity

from a bird’s eye view I can see you are just like me

it’s not hard for me to love you.

 

ROAD TRIP: Tanzania

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ZANZIBAR: THE BEACH

The sheets at Baby Blue Lodge are white crisp, thin, and mold perfectly to the grooves and lines of my body. I’m sharing a king sized bed with Catie and Suzi and even with the three of us, I slept between the comfort of our sheets and the blue-lined mosquito net without any problem. I woke to the sounds of the ocean and Africa mixed together—seagulls crying desperately in sync with chickens calling for their loved ones on the ground. My feet touched the sandy colored dirt hollow floor and I smiled. We are here. We made it to Zanzibar.

***

Before we met the Indian Ocean, far before I could relax with a Safari Lager (a Tanzanian brew), and pre-bathing suit, we started our journey from the Peace Corps office in Kigali. I had come in on a Monday afternoon after I was able to submit my final grades for my students in the second term. I came into town dismayed to find that the burrito place is closed for some reason on Mondays, but no matter, we continued to set about for our departure—arriving for our 5:10am bus at 4:00am at the Nybagogo bus park. I decided to forgo sleeping the night before and so I was rather loony (more so than usual) as we boarded our green “pimped out” Taqua bus. We all got assigned seats together and moved slowly as we prepared our home for the next two-ish days. The bus wasn’t all that bad actually. I mean, would I choose it for a dream home? Heck no. But it was a neat experience to drive (especially for only 50 bucks) across the entire country of Tanzania; we cruised by rural villages—desolate, dry, and full of secluded mud huts with small pockets of people. The densely populated greenery of Rwanda felt like another world.

We had one major stop in Dodoma (at an African version of a rest stop) of about 4 hours so the drivers could have an extended rest. Dimly lit shops offered meat, eggs, chips (fried potatoes, French fries if you will), tea, and bread among other things. In the pitch black of darkness, Sara and I shared a delicious ginger infused East African Tea, with some doughnuts. We passed the hours talking to a lovely and kind Tanzanian woman, Hilda, and using whatever light we could find to read our respective books (I was reading Running the Rift, an incredibly written story of fiction based on the history of Rwanda—a young Olympic hopeful runner has to navigate his dreams as the Genocide becomes more of a reality in the mid-90’s in Rwanda). After sunlight broke through in early morning and the sky settled into its morning routine, we arrived in Dar es Salaam—the next point in getting closer to Zanzibar, a large island off the coast.

We found our way to the ferry with bags underneath our eyes and arms, bought our second class tickets (we are PCVs after all) and braved the crowded cluster of people: tourists, Zanzibarians, workers, and everyone in between (crowds were extra high—of course it’s sweet summer time, but also because a lot of Tanzanians like to go to Zanzibar during Ramadan). I didn’t think twice about our safety on our catalina-esque boat. I had expected something of a huge barge—like the one you take to Staten Island in New York, and instead we got the Kilimanjaro III, a big speedboat machine. Classy. Sara and I joked about hitting a ‘sandburg’ as if we were on an African version of the Titanic or something, but this joke was silenced and shamed when people next to us on the top deck began to freak out. Rapid pointing and rushed voices made us suspicious. Dolphins? No. Try a sinking ferry. My glasses were buried beneath an assortment of fruit, books, and notebooks in my bag so I didn’t get a direct look as the ship went under. But, when we docked in Stonetown (the main town of Zanzibar), the staff all but threw us off the boat—our ferry was becoming the rescue boat to try and save what we heard was over 200 people on a ferry that was just 200 feet away from us.

***

Later, when we nuzzled on indescribably comfortable couches and pillows, we processed what happened out there. Peace Corps called checking in. BBC highlighted the news. Wow. What a close call. Life sure is weird.

After the ferry craziness, we met Stonetown, Zanzibar, embracing the old washed over buildings, the fishing boats tumbling over the water, and a hellish amount of money hungry taxi drivers. We spent the first hour or two in what felt like a time portal where we lost time doing nothing. We hired a taxi who drove us in circles to an ATM and then switched us into a mini-van like you would find back in the Burbs. Whatever, I thought. Let’s just get on our way. In efforts to save money (no surprise, our visas were double what they thought they would be and the price of the ferry was a big chunk of change) I had a mixed salad for dinner. It was extraordinarily underwhelming (as a mix of cabbage, peppers, and carrots could be) but our free breakfast every day (mango, passion fruit, chapatti, nutella, egg, and watermelon) redeemed the food question in full. Plus, Baby Bush Lodge left tea and coffee out all day. FOR FREE. Heaven? Yes. We’re barefoot. And I’m a tourist…which is pretty awesome. Never thought I would be so happy about that.

***

It would be only a couple of days later when I received the news about the shooting at the movie theatre in my hometown, Aurora, Colorado. Relieved that my family was unharmed but deeply disturbed by the pain that many community members were dealing with, I felt adrift, sad, and somehow, in world of paradise, homesick.

***

Pure light surrounded me—above, below, between. The white pearlish sand snug tight in the crevices of my sneakers, the sun baiting on my pasty white skin lined with sweat and sunscreen. Low tide. The water—green, blue, navy, and teal—watched us run by waiting for wind to bring it to shore. Catie, a Boulder granola crunching athlete ran yards ahead of me. Seaweed squished beneath me with every other step. For months, I’ve ran on the dusty village roads. Here, it was me, the sand, the water, and light. Tears brimmed my eyes. The weight of worry, anxiety, and looming decisions bounced off my heart like a toddler on a trampoline. Music from Relient K strung along and everything lifted with the light. No matter what happens, I’m okay.

ZANZIBAR: STONETOWN

I’ve slept about 8 hours over the last couple of days. Typically, vacations are for sleep and relaxation. But, we travel a bit differently I suppose. After a few serene days at the beach, we altered out travel plans just a bit (turns out later, this would cause all kinds of disruptions and changes in our trip) so that we could stay a night in Stonetown. We tasted Stonetown one of the nights we were exploring outside of our beach area, and we loved it. Stonetown has this lively, delicious, yummy (did I mention DELCIOUS!) night market. On the menu at a variety of stands to choose from, you can have Zanzibar Pizza (including one with banana and nutella), a sugarcane juice drink, falafel, and meat kabobs. Rwanda doesn’t have street food (its bad culture to eat in public) so this was like the mecca of food for us. We were beyond excited.

Our night peaked well before the night market though, as we walked around exploring, and stumbled upon a place with happy hour. Not only did they have happy hour, but hello, mojitos and daiquiris were on the menu. Moreover, the place that hosted this delightful happy hour was on the rooftop of a hotel/restaurant that made you feel like you could have been in the Caribbean, in Morocco, or in an old European city all at once. We referred to this place as heaven. Believe me, it’s about as close as you could get.

We laughed over drinks about our nights on the beach with the Masai people (a pastoral group of Africans in Northern Tanzania and Kenya—look them up, they are pretty cool), about our ridiculous Peace Corps lives, and just how cool of a place Stonetown was. We also spent a majority of our night looking for a place to stay. Our situation…well it was somehow complicated. We had managed to book lodging, but with our numbers and shortage of money…that option fell through. So, I’ll just say we made it work. We managed to find a hotel room for an affordable price…and well here’s a little akabanga (secret). We had to leave the room at 5am (per the hotel manager; it was a part of our little bargain) and so we stumbled weakily (we were half way asleep) onto the beach right off of Stonetown and slept for 2 hours until daybreak came. That’s right, I can cross that little goal off the bucket list: to sleep on a beach. Done and done.

DAR ES SALAAM

Subway was once a fast food sandwich stop that was frequently the food of choice for our hockey team along the stretch of highways throughout Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee to name a few. Ellie, our coach, would reluctantly trudge down the narrow aisle of our coach bus, taking stock of our Disney themed blankets (growing up is so overrated) and would ask, “what about Subway?” Our choices were often limited mind you, and as college hockey players, a Big Mac before an 80 minute match wasn’t a sensible option. So, I don’t blame her. But for the past 5 years, well, I have cringed a little at the sound of a Subway foot long. Trust me, I ate a lot of those. Once, even a foot long and a Big Mac in the same day—but that’s another story, first date material, I’m sure.

***

Yesterday, after a rocky ride into Dar es Salaam on the ferry we found lodging (The Rainbow Hotel—no messing around with lodging this part of the trip!) and perused the vertical and horizontal blocks of the city. Indeed, a city it was! A local said Dar (the capital of the East African Community) is home to 4 million people. There are tall and large buildings everywhere, smog, people moving all over the place, and lots and lots of cars! Kigali too is a city, but this one is on a much larger scale, a little more worn in, and on top of everything else, it sits right on the ocean. We found a shopping center complete with jewelry shops, a supermarket, a pizza place…and a Subway! We opened the door to the extraordinarily small version of America’s popular chain and the fresh bread got me so excited that I jumped up and down. I got as close to a version Ali and I always go back on road trips (chipotle chicken) and my tummy was pretty happy as Southwest ranch dribbled all over my face. I do love Rwandan food and African food at large, but sometimes there’s nothing like eating something familiar to your taste buds—even if it is Subway.

***

It would be fun to say that our stay in Dar was full of intrigue, crazy nights, and spontaneity. But, truth be told, our exhaustion had set in, so following our shopping trip and Subway afternoon delight, we went back to our hotel room with cable and watched TV. And you know what? We had a marvelous time. Though I wanted to keep the channel on the field hockey sports channel (the hotel was Indian owned, and thus a lot of channels about popular Indian sports, like cricket and field hockey) I compromised and we spent a great deal of the night watching the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. We’re cool, we know. We tried to catch some sleep as well, because our next leg of the journey—on to Moshi (close to Mt. Kilimanjaro—would begin with yet another bus ride (this one would be about 8 hours) at 6:00am sharp. Traveling nomads? You bet.

MOSHI, ARUSHA, & HOME

Sweat, heat, frustration and exhaustion wraps itself around my body. It’s 1:00am. There’s screaming outside from men leaving the bar and their never-ending billiards game. Mosquitos and flies filter in and out of our holey white mosquito net. All five of us are sharing one queen sized bed. The end of our travels has brought us here. Stacked against each other, I have to move. I reposition myself at the end of the bed, curl up, and hope for sleep. We are leaving for Rwanda in the morning (from a place a couple hours from the border, called Kahama)—two days later—and sleeping on a bus with bumpy dirt roads at times proves fruitless.

***

A few days ago—was it three? Two? I’m not really sure anymore—we spent a couple of days in Moshi, Tanzania. Moshi, the greenest town in Tanzania, reminded me of an African version of Boulder, Colorado. It was much cleaner than other parts of Tanzania, the people were incredibly friendly (our customer service at the Twiga Hotel was some of the best I’ve ever received), and as a base to Mt. Kilimanjaro, it’s beautiful! We spent the majority of our time in Moshi (I just also love saying that name—reminds me of Yoshi from Mario Cart) outside exploring (we got to see rice fields, a forest, and a waterfall), at our hotel eating (the grilled cheeses were too good to be true, and they were showing Olympic replays from Beijing before London 2012 began), and at a local coffee shop that was just about the best place you could ever get coffee, smoothies, or delicious food from. The Coffee Shop (that’s what it’s called) is located in the middle of town and has the coolest vibe going for it. You can sit out back, among trees and the patio, and order everything from espresso, to a mango smoothie, to coffee cake, to waffles, to quiche. Inside, it has a huge board full of houses available to rent, yoga groups, cooperatives in Moshi for women, and travel trips to climb, hike, or camp in the mountainous areas. Like I said, it was a cool place. As a group, we loved Moshi, and I am definitely pushing for a reunion there in a few years. Only next time, we can actually climb the mountain (it’s expensive; thus our choice to do activities near the base of the mountain only)!

***

Because we wanted yet another extra day in Moshi (we loved it that much; and hey, why not extend our epic vacation?) and we realized we could not get transport from Moshi to Kigali, we had to wait another day and catch a bus to Arusha (about an hour away) and organize transport there. Arusha was less than impressive, in my opinion. It was somehow a big city, with a lot of things happening (and I noticed a heck of a lot of shoes for sell) but I wasn’t really sure how to navigate myself around there. I suppose I was just disoriented. That can definitely happen in African towns. We managed to buy overpriced tickets to Kigali (we would later find out that direct tickets wasn’t exactly true; the tickets took us to Kahama, about 2 hours from the border, but we would have to wait an extra day to continue the trip), get another shared room at a lovely establishment called 7-11 (I’m not kidding) and find some food for the evening. We went to a hole-in-the-wall place for some traditional dishes (I opted for some doughnuts and tea—actually quite satisfying) and to finish our meal, we bought corn on the cob with lime juice and salt. Quite tasty! After exploring Arusha as much as we really could (and felt up to doing) we finished our night together with a screening of Twilight on Catie’s laptop. Vacation rocks.

***

Like I said, our tickets didn’t take us home in one day like they were arranged on the front part of our vacation. So, we had one more day close to the border before we could finally get moving in the direction of crossing the border back into Rwanda. We had to keep Peace Corps informed on our whereabouts, and because we had no money, and also had no way to buy phone credit (we have a different company than Tanzania offers) our security officer sent us credit to get in touch with people in Rwanda to inform them about arriving late. We crossed into Rwanda about 10 days after we had started, and it sure was nice to speak Kinyarwanda again, to see those good ole banana trees, and just to feel at home.

Traveling is one of the best life experiences, but it’s also great because you always get to go back to where you started. I felt strangely exhausted and refreshed at the same time. I had a bit of everything while in Tanzania—we had beaches, we had the Obama Bar, we hung out with Masai men, we had cities, we had American and Tanzanian food, we had bus rides, boat rides, long walks, laughter, stress, heat, coldness, and we had one hell of a time. I got to do all of this with some great friends and it’s such a great opportunity to get to know Africa just a bit better. Africa has to be one of the coolest continents in the world. What a few weeks it has been: I went from all of this in Tanzania, to GLOW Camp, and now, finally, finally, I get to be home. It’s fun to tell my neighbors, students, and friends, all about my journeys. Sometimes, I can’t really even believe it myself.

***

inspire.

Standard

I never imagined that a true moment of glory and freedom would happen in the middle of a girls’ camp in rural Rwanda:

the Glee version of Don’t Stop Believing was playing in the background, the enthusiastic and screaming girls (there were 106 of them to be exact) were huddled around the front of the room which became our makeshift stage for the Talent Show, and maybe best of all, most of us were decked out in African fabric (called igitenge—my outfit was complete with a hair wrap done by another one of the Rwandan camp facilitators) as well as these beyond hilarious white masks that the girls made during our drama sessions at camp. To give you an idea, when I first saw these masks (some of the girls were performing mime for the drama session during afternoon activities) after coming back from playing baseball on the first day of camp, I literally fell over laughing and crying out of happiness. As we improv’d our dance moves (which included cartwheels and interpretative dancing) I glanced out in the crowd of our GLOW girls and saw smiles and cheers and happiness. One girl ripped up paper and came to the front to throw it on us—a Rwandan way to show appreciation—and I remember thinking that this kind of spontaneity, joy, and laughing was exactly what we came to camp to help the girls with. Plus, it’s also fun to just be a little weird every now and then (or in my case, all the time).

Dancing so freely in front of all these people was particularly memorable not because it was a case of acting like a freak (I do this on the daily) but instead, as I was dancing with my friends, and as we watched other dances, songs, and other performances at the Talent Show, I got the sense that all of us—the campers but also the facilitators—were changed and transformed by this camp experience.

Saying yes you can is powerful stuff. Believing in somebody can change the way someone thinks about themselves. I believed all of this before; I’ve stood behind these ideas and concepts since I came to Rwanda, but also long before. However, there was something deeply special about watching girls come out of their shells, to take ownership of their own abilities, and to love who they are, to believe in what they can be for the very first time in their lives. We come from a culture where positive reinforcement is everywhere. It doesn’t mean Americans don’t have self-esteem problems; in fact, we may have even more issues when it comes to that kind of thing than other cultures, but the idea of possibility, potential, and self-love is certainly available. I mean, seriously. Go to a local bookstore sometime and check out the self-help section. But now, I’m working with students and people in a culture where this kind of support and motivation is not always accessible. That’s what attracted me to GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp in the first place—in bringing about positive change in a place you have to start with love. You have to help the future generations to see their potential, to strive for that potential, and to know that they can achieve their goals. Is it easy? Oh my goodness, no. But supporting that path is, I believe, the most important work needed to be done.

All I have to do, I know now, is to be that person that says yes; and when I was up there dancing, and throughout the whole week, I came to the realization that no matter where life takes me, that is what I want my life to be about. If you asked me what I want to do with my life, well, this is it. We all have strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and all sorts of gifts and talents. I am relatively attune to what I can and cannot offer this world, but wow, I did not expect how much joy I would find this past week. In fact, this week, I didn’t realize how much I was in my element until I was out of it. On the last day of GLOW camp, as we watched the March of Heroes (all of the campers were in a specific hero group, for example, Oprah (that was my group!**), Wangari Mathai, JK Rowling, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Miss Jojo (a Rwandan singer) where the girls came in chanting their own songs for each hero, I felt like a proud mother and a surge of positivity and hope surged throughout my body. I saw girls who had started the week quiet, unsure, and hesitant. The girls that marched into the large brick-walled cafeteria room were not the same. They were different. We gave out their GLOW certificates and before saying goodbye, we had a candle-lighting ceremony that represented the effect that the spirit of GLOW can have—you start with one, but soon you can spread it and you have a community of positivity and love that never existed before.

I had the beautiful opportunity to not only watch the girls of Oprah (Eugenie, Francine, Valentine, Clementine, Nadine, Mimi, Angelique, Olive, Rachel, Belise, and our junior facilitator, Domitire (one of the best handball players in the Eastern Province mind you) grow in a matter of days, but maybe even more dear to my heart, I was able to watch as my very own girls from my school (Divine, Yvonne, Joselyne, Joyce, and Maisara) thrive outside of their own community with new people, friends, and ideas.

The fire burned freely underneath the moonlight sky. Each girl held tightly to their small piece of white paper. On this paper, each girl wrote just a small sentence or two. These were powerful sentences though; these sentences were the I can’ts of their lives. Each GLOW girl wrote something that they or somebody had told them that they could not do. As we slowly gathered around the fire, any girl that felt so inclined could stand in front of the entire group and share what they had been told they could not do. I sat near another Rwandan facilitator who was able to translate, and for the hour or so that we sat in the flames and smoke of the fire, I had chills from the words and passion that I heard coming from the girls’ stories. Divine came to the middle of our circle and with a sense of strength and courage that I had never seen from her, she told her story. Divine told us with a commanding sense of conviction (the MC even commented about how she was the most fearless of all girls) that her family had told her to stop studying. She was told she could not go to university. She was told that because of her bad marks that school was pointless. She was told that she could not do something with her life. I watched as she ripped the paper in half and threw it into the fire. Girls cheered. We all cheered. And tears came down my face before I could even stop them. Divine inspires me.

~

The dust from the dirt and ground seeped into my clothes, skin, and face. This can’t be good for my acne, I thought. But, I didn’t care. We were playing baseball. I was one of the leaders for the sports afternoon activity, and so after a brief stretching and some breathing exercises, we decided to mix up the sporting options a bit and teach the girls baseball. Matt had brought his bat and balls and so we began the task of teaching the girls a bit about the so-called America’s game. The girls are smart! We explained in broken Kinyarwanda, English, and dramatic gestures how to play the game. And get this. They actually understood! Besides several (okay, many) bloopers of girls actually throwing the ball at girls as they were running, we had girls catch some fly balls, throw the ball to the correct base, and even some girls who hit some home-runs. Not bad for an afternoon at the park. One time, standing in the outfield, I watched one girl hit a strong ball towards 2nd base. We all gasped in awe of the hit, but we gasped much louder when one girl was able to catch the ball bare-handed. I exclaimed with joy when I saw that it was one of my dearest students, Maisara, who had found enough athleticism to make a difficult and incredible catch even in a sun-infused sky. Maisara smiled and as she watched all of us cheer for her, a huge grin reached across her face! She held the ball up in the air. “Yes! I did it”, she said. Yes, girl. You sure did.

~

Because I was in charge of the schedule and programming of our camp in the Eastern Province, I was not assigned to teach a lesson at camp. While I was sad not to be able to teach and be working in the classroom, I was also excited to have the chance to observe and absorb the information that my fellow colleagues had prepared for the girls. The lessons the girls had throughout the week included lessons on self-esteem, communication, decision-making, career planning, gender balance, gender roles, HIV/AIDS prevention (including a condom demonstration), and HIV/AIDS biology. I sat through most of the lessons with my Oprah hero group so I could be familiar with the lessons and knowledge when we did our group check-ins each day. In one lesson, the girls were discussing the concept of being a role-model. The teacher asked the class who was a role-model at their school. For a few moments, no girl made a move. Slowly, one girl raised her finger and stood up. To me delight it was Joselyne, a senior three student who is one of the most hard-working students I have. She was wearing her green and blue igitenge in a beautiful wrap on her head and remarked that she was a leader at her school. The teacher pressed on, asking how she knew she was a role-model. Joselyne gave this a few moments of thought and replied that the other students had told her she was a role model for them. The teacher accepted this response, but for whatever reason, I felt compelled to speak. I raised my hand, stood up, and looked Joselyne right in the eye. I said that yes, the students agree that Joselyne is a role-model at school, but that many of the teachers, administration and community members felt the same way. I told her that I felt the same way. I said that she was absolutely correct, and that she should be proud of herself. The class cheered. Joselyne cheered. Without question, I just know that girl is going to do great things for our school and for her country. 

~  

We had a carnival (including things like pin-the-tail-on-the-cow, water balloons, face-painting, and limbo), made jewelry, took photos (so. many. photoshoots.), sang cheers, danced like crazy people, ate at themed tables for lunch (with topics like favorite sports, school subject, etc.), made a ridiculous amount of posters, had guest speakers from different sectors about their career paths (including a broadcaster from BBC), and kept late hours to make sure everything at camp went on without a hitch. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this tired. Yet, I also don’t think I’ve ever felt this satisfied, inspired, and touched. Putting everything that happened these last few days has proved incredibly challenging. With these kinds of emotions it’s hard to process, put it on paper, and expect people to really understand what it’s like to feel this way.

There are a lot of kinds of love in this world. I didn’t know just how vast and wide my heart was until coming to Rwanda. And for these girls, being able to explain what it means to live your best life or to teach them cheers with phrases like yes we can was a transformative experience for them, but also for me. My girls have started calling me ‘Auntie’ and as I watch them develop, mature, grow, and start to believe in themselves, well, there is absolutely no other place I would rather be. To say that GLOW was a highlight of my Peace Corps experience isn’t quite enough; this was genuinely one of the best things I’ve been involved with. Ever.

**Just in case you were interested, here’s what one of our Oprah cheers was:

Put your Oprah glasses on! Pur your Oprah glasses on! Put your Oprah glasses on!

This is our circle. We are together as O.

Ooooooooooooooooo

1, 2, 3!

If you live your best life, clap your hands!

If you live your best life, clap your hands!

If you live your best life and you really want to know it, if you live your best life, clap your hands!

Oprah….Oprah…OPRAH!!!! 

my hero poster for OPRAH

pin the tail on the COW. win for cultural context.

put on your OPRAH glasses 🙂

WE WON THE SPIRIT STICK. holler.

the “I can’t” funeral

Maisara about to hit her home-run in baseball

me and my Ruramira girls ❤

talent show. enough said.

OPRAH GROUP with our GLOW shirts!